An Uncertain Future for Riordan Mansion State Historic Park

view of the back of Riordan Mansion from the visitors center

view of the back of Riordan Mansion from the visitors center

The tours are still running at Riordan Mansion State Historic Park.  On the hour, every hour, seven days a week in the summer months.  The hour long, volunteer-led tour is still as fascinating as ever, an amazing opportunity to step back in time into an 13,000 square foot arts and crafts style home, furnished in every room by original family artifacts from the turn of the century.  Under the surface however, on all of the volunteer and paid staff faces you can see a new sense of uncertainty and worry.  There is a desperation, too close to the surface to hide, that comes out when they thank you for coming and ask you to take some time in the gift shop or give an additional dollar or two donation.  How much longer can they operate like this?  What will the slower winter months bring in terms of lower revenue and more difficult choices?  While I guess every lit bit counts, the systemic issues will not go away with an extra dollar in the donation jar.  What can we do?

Riordan Mansion State Historic Park is a victim of the poor finances and poor decisions of the state of Arizona.  As a state park, it did not have control over its own revenue generation and expenditures.  As the recession took on the look and feel of depression in Phoenix, the state legislature made drastic cuts, taking money from the state parks fund to plug holes elsewhere and shuttering some of these parks, one of a kind cultural and natural resources.  Riordan Mansion first became open to the public as a state park in the 1983 after the original owners’ son in law gifted it to the state when he passed away with the agreement that it would be open to the public as a museum.  His three daughters are still alive and are still actively involved in seeing out the wishes of the family in the preservation and interpretation of this landmark.  If the state had to completely give up the property, it would revert back to family ownership, but the descendents of the famous Riordan brothers do not have the means to maintain it and manage the museum.  They hope, as do we, that it can remain a state park.  It seems like the least we can do, for a family that was instrumental in creating the state of Arizona, Coconino County and in building the community of Flagstaff.

Riordan Mansion visitors center

an old picture from the Visitors Center

So basically, after 28 years of restoration, preservation, protection, and interpretation, this world-class historic house, important to local, national, and international history, was going to be shuttered.

This is where the volunteers come in.

I first came into Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in 2006 to drop off fliers as a volunteer for the Museum of Northern Arizona.  I was lucky that day, because Kathy Farretta was at the desk.  She and I got to talking and although I was already volunteering at the Museum of Northern Arizona, she encouraged me to come volunteer there as well.  This is how Kathy is.  Her enthusiasm for the Riordan family and the historic home is contagious.  It is just the quality you need in a volunteer manager (which she was at that time).

Kathy Farretta and Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom

An old picture of Kathy and me when I was volunteering at Riordan

Soon after, I started training to become one of the core volunteer group of tour guides.  We memorized a small book’s worth of facts about the family and the artifacts inside the home and then designed our own narrative to guide up to fifteen visitors through the house over the course of an hour.  It was truly my ideal job.  I gave a couple of tours every week, sometimes coming by on my lunch hour to give a tour.  After only a couple of weeks volunteering there, Kathy invited me to an annual volunteer appreciation event which would coincide with a retirement send off for the park manager.  Not even realizing what a great opportunity and honor I had, I sat next to one of the Riordan granddaughters, immersed in the genuine warmth of the Riordan families.  It was an experience that would add authenticity to my tours, as I added tidbits about the granddaughters memories from their visits to the home growing up.

My passion and lasting commitment towards Riordan Mansion is shared by many volunteers there, some of whom have given decades of volunteer time.  So I am filled with pride when I see that the doors are still open.  The volunteer core made that possible through the formation of an all-volunteer group, the Riordan Action Network.  In addition to volunteer tour guides, there are now planning committees, including an active fundraising group.  The volunteer base has grown to 60 individuals, many of whom make a weekly commitment or perform multiple functions.

reflection at Riordan Mansion

The transparency windows showing up with the reflection of volunteers enjoying a potluck in the front courtyard

In the very same moment that I am filled with pride, my heart sinks to see the current state of affairs at Riordan.  Kathy, who offered me the best volunteer opportunity I have ever had, is no longer working at Riordan.  She lost her job in the cuts.  In losing that job, she lost part of her identity, and Riordan lost part of its heart.  I know that sounds over-the-top cheesy, but its true.  There was this energy and enthusiasm around Riordan that made people want to stay and drew visitors back.  Kathy played a large role in that.  Along with the rest of the park staff, Tony, Mike, Nikki, Aaron, Holly, and Mary, all of whom have either lost their jobs, been pushed into early retirement, or had drastically reduced hours and benefits.

Riordan Mansion volunteer potluck

Volunteers and staff gather regularly for potlucks, enjoying each other's company and sharing ideas for how to keep Riordan open

So what is the future of Riordan Mansion State Historic Park?  The volunteers are doing an amazing job of running the existing operations and looking towards the future for keeping it open.  However, the potential for burnout of paid staff and volunteers alike is higher than ever.  There are signs of stress from so much uncertainty and constant crisis management.  I really wish I had an answer.  It’s at times like this that I experience the downsides of being on the road, constantly moving and unable to make a long term commitment and be part of a local community.  I have the delusion that if we were still living here in Flagstaff, I would be able to do something, that somehow my contribution of time and talent would make a difference.  Of course, the realization that that is not realistic, shows just how big the political and economic forces at work are and why every one of the volunteers and staff are wearing a look of uncertainty and worry.

CLICK HERE to donate to Riordan Mansion or find out how else you can help.  If you are in northern Arizona, call (928) 779 – 4395 to make a reservation for a tour … and bring your friends!


3 responses to “An Uncertain Future for Riordan Mansion State Historic Park

  1. A difficult position for Riordan, and they would really enjoy having a top notch organizer there like you. I see that AZ is making some changes in its park system, and it might improve. Certainly they need funding, but every project needs a leader.

  2. Hey Sharon & Jay,

    First, thanks for visiting with me in Preskit yesterday @ Cupper’s, and sharing your plans and adventures with me. always a treat to see you both!

    As to Riordan and the other state parks whose future hangs in the balance due to short-sighted actions by the legislative leadership (or lack thereof) in Arizona, my heart goes out to Kathy and all those whose passion for service has been quashed. Yes, financial support in a large way and strategizing for sustainability are both vital lifelines to keep the doors open.

    Perhaps even more critical is to deliver the unified message to elected officials that our state parks are an important piece of the economic puzzle of our communities. Short-sighted closures don’t factor that in, it seems.

    I am sure your sharing with Kathy and the other volunteers @ the potluck get-together is deeply appreciated as a welcome infusion of solutions and enthusiasm. Fresh perspective from someone for whom service at Riordan was a kick, an honor, and a blessing is a tonic, even if it doesn’t dramatically or immediately improve the circumstances.

    Thanks again for an informative post. Happy Vegas & Utah!


  3. Pingback: Nine Months on the Road, Just Getting the Hang of It | Service Driven

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